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Henry David Thoreau and the disdain of vanity

In “Economy”, Henry David Thoreau’s opening chapter to Walden, the esteemed author says of fashion trends,

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcæ, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

In this statement, he captures what marketers know today: that people crave contemporary status.

They want to fit in.

Someone decided that Paris was the icon of trendy, so they who surrender to common acceptance – who need external validation – shift their tastes to be in accordance not with individual self-expression as they should but with what “high society” has decided for them.

He goes on, scoffing at historical trends,

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. We are amused at beholding the costume of Henry VIII., or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands. All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it, which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people. Let Harlequin be taken with a fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too. When the soldier is hit by a cannon ball rags are as becoming as purple.

Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead talks about how her pre-speech routine is the simple repetition of three words: people, people, people.

Because we are all just people.

The only thing that matters is character.

Underneath the tailored suit of the c-level executive is a person who, if they are like most, feels like a fraud.

Clothes are symbols, but when cultural norms breakdown such as in times of war, we realize they are merely cloth – the magic has vanished from Aladdin’s carpet.

In closing, he casts a light on the fickleness of the fashionable. A modern example of this is the rise in chokers.

Just think, one day parachute pants or the mullet might make a comeback.

The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable.

His points might be extrapolated to highlight the nuanced flux in design that drives capitalism, and therewith, the constant need to consume the novel.

They express important and serious lessons about Western values and the frequent senselessness of cultural norms and patterns, which have become exasperated as marketing has advanced as a field and evil geniuses have grown smarter at manipulating self-perception.

Think also for a minute how this relates to modern technology. So many wait hours for the latest and greatest, indulging selfishly in something unnecessary at the detriment of another’s well-being, the people who have to work with suicide nets to keep pace with American depravity.

Out of sight, out of mind. 

Just be good people, and please, don’t succumb to fashion trends.

The emotional labor of professionalism

Seth Godin in his book This is Marketing advances the idea that a professional puts aside their authenticity using emotional labor to do a job that is useful to others.

Emotional labor, he writes, is “The work of doing what we don’t necessarily feel like doing, the work of being a professional, the work of engaging with others in a way that leads to the best long-term outcome.”

He suggests people don’t care about the bad day you’re having or the details about your personal life, and if you have a job that allows you to be your most honest self, you’re just an amateur with a good gig.

It makes sense. As a professional, you have a duty to perform the work you’ve promised, and work does tend to be utilitarian or impersonal transactions.

Notwithstanding the idea’s commonsensicalness, it’s dangerous.

Human beings are not services or products to be simply useful in a society of kind of accepted systems of thinking.

Sure, you do your job. But we are more than institutions.

We are people, with complex personalities, each trying to find our way along these made up systems that we kind of agree on, each with a social responsibility to our communities – to our neighbors, and cashiers, and the kids we hire to mow our lawns.

You have a duty to do your part in creating an accepting, caring, appreciative, and helpful world.

The kind of impersonality that has become accepted during the rise of industrialism is a large contributor to the many problems we see in the world – the abundance of mental health issues, the lack of fairness in our democratic processes, and increasing inequities.

You are more than just a person doing your job. You are a person, who is busy and trying to survive in a hypercompetitive environment.

But understand this: If you abandon good-naturedness, empathy, and the love necessary to create a better world, you might be more productive, but you have failed the next generation because you’ve created one more small divide in the common humanity that unites us.

The essential books to start becoming cultured

Reading great books will open new worlds for you. For instance, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin can teach you about novellas, new methods of instilling habits of virtue, and inspire visions of eloquence – establishing a standard of intellectualism you might strive for.

This book is mentioned in particular because it was the book that commenced my love for learning.

One hot summer day in 2014, while I was reading the book in the passenger seat of the Steak n’ Shake food truck I worked on, I discovered a list in the back of it: The Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading, a collection of the most important cultural works, hand-picked by experts in academia.

At that time, I resolved to read every single book on it, or at least become familiar with them enough to decide whether they were worthwhile pursuits.

It has served me well, and here it is for you in hopes that it might ignite a similar spark, advancing your journey in a direction of cultural richness.

From Goodreads (Nearer to my list)

The now expanded library

Another format from OverDrive

 

The first step to being cultured

If you don’t come from an intellectual environment, trying to get a good foundation of knowledge can be daunting. Quality education is difficult to come by, and you may not know it when you see it.

I’m convinced that it’s a never-ending adventure. Culture is something to be explored, and you never really get it figured out. The ones who think they know it all haven’t read enough or sought out enough information that challenges their perspectives.

One might recommend you begin by reading a lot of cultural media, listening to news stations like NPR, PBS, or BBC, or exploring sites like Open Culture.

These are all okay places to begin, but my advice is simple:

Read great books. 

I’m not talking about the latest New York Times best-sellers. These are actually poor indications of quality. I am referring to the classics, the books that have proven through the ages to be monuments of thought and relevance.

 

The Examined Life

In 2008, Astra Taylor released examined life, a documentary which pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms and puts it back on the streets. In Examined Life, filmmaker Astra Taylor accompanies some of today’s most influential thinkers on a series of unique excursions through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.

Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques.

Michael Hardt ponders the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure.

Judith Butler and a friend stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism.

And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West – perhaps America’s best-known public intellectual – compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be.

Offering privileged moments with great thinkers from fields ranging from moral philosophy to cultural theory, Examined Life reveals philosophy’s power to transform the way we see the world around us and imagine our place in it.

Here is a playlist of the film that was discovered on Top Documentary Films:

45 essential movies for the student of philosophy

This list was written in 2010 by Matt Whitlock for Mubi.

You can find the original post here.

  1. A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick, 1971
  2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence – Steven Spielberg, 2001
  3. Alexander – Oliver Stone, 2004
  4. Augustine Of Hippo – Roberto Rossellini, 1972
  5. Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonze, 1999
  6. Being There – Hal Ashby, 1979
  7. Beyond Good and Evil – Liliana Cavani, 1977
  8. Blaise Pascal – Roberto Rossellini, 1972
  9. Cartesius – Roberto Rossellini, 1974
  10. Crimes and Misdemeanors – Woody Allen, 1989
  11. Days of Nietzche In Turin – Júlio Bressane, 2001
  12. Derrida – Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, 2002
  13. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind – Michel Gondry, 2004
  14. Examined Life – Astra Taylor, 2008
  15. Giordano Bruno – Giuliano Montaldo, 1973
  16. Groundhog Day – Harold Ramis, 1993
  17. Hannah Arendt – Margarethe Von Trotta, 2012
  18. I Heart Huckabees – David O. Russell, 2004
  19. Ikiru – Akira Kurosawa, 1952
  20. Inception – Christopher Nolan, 2010
  21. Lake of Fire – Tony Kaye, 2006
  22. Little Miss Sunshine – Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2006
  23. Mindwalk – Bernt Amadeus Capra, 1990
  24. Minority Report – Steven Spielberg, 2002
  25. My Night at Maud’s – Éric Rohmer, 1969
  26. Pi – Darren Aronofsky, 1998
  27. Rashômon – Akira Kurosawa, 1950
  28. Rope – Alfred Hitchcock, 1948
  29. Sisyphus – Marcell Jankovics, 1974
  30. Socrates – Roberto Rossellini, 1971
  31. Stranger Than Fiction – Marc Forster, 2006
  32. Talk to Her – Pedro Almodóvar, 2002
  33. Thank You for Smoking – Jason Reitman, 2005
  34. The Fountainhead – King Vidor, 1949
  35. The Gods Must Be Crazy – Jamie Uys, 1980
  36. The Ister – David Barison, Daniel Ross, 2004
  37. The Matrix – Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, 1999
  38. The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema – Sophie Fiennes, 2006
  39. The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman, 1957
  40. The Stranger – Luchino Visconti, 1967
  41. The Truman Show – Peter Weir, 1998
  42. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing – Jill Sprecher, 2001
  43. Waking Life – Richard Linklater, 2001
  44. Wittgenstein – Derek Jarman, 1993
  45. Žižek! – Astra Taylor, 2005

Bonus:

  • Being in the World (2010)
  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (2001)
  • Le Journal Du Séducteur (1996)
  • Nietzsche (2003)
  • Nietzsche and the Nazis (2006)
  • Socrates (1982)
  • The Alchemist of Happiness (2004)
  • The Elegant Universe (2003)
  • The Last Days of Immanuel Kant (1994)
  • Um Estrangeiro em Porto Alegre (1999)
  • When Nietzsche Wept (2007)

 

Tension

It’s okay to feel sad or upset some days.

It is easy to feel there is a canyon between your expectations of yourself or your life and the realities.

Life is mundane for many. It is a series of small, often unnoticable changes.

And it’s often not fair.

And people can suck and be selfish and judgy.

And you might feel like an underdog

…or unrelatable

…or weird

…or lonely

…or lost

…or like you can’t be yourself.

Just keep trying. Never stop searching for what you love, and speak up about it.

Wanting to quit is normal. Feeling overwhelmed is natural, especially for those who are young and don’t have privilege.

(I feel overwhelmed a lot.)

Give yourself permission to celebrate the small things.

Life is a series of highs and lows.

Just take it one day, or hour, or second at a time. You can do this.

The unknown

We can attempt to be reasonable, to seek facts and make our decisions based on values, but we construct imaginary systems, which are influenced a great deal by biases like ethnocentrism and recency.

To affirm that there is some sense of a shared worldview is false. No one knows what they’re doing. No one has any solid inclination of what the road map is. At most, they’re best guesses.

We have a passed down tradition of accepted norms, promulgated by family, community, media, and organizations we trust. Our constructs like the need for private property are largely influenced by great thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, and Locke. And these evolve from cultural influencers – those with confidence.

The average person who attempts to advance an informed opinion about global conflicts is making broad assumptions.

However, we still have a responsibility to attempt to grasp at truths because if we cease attempting to know, we cease the advancement of humanity.

The advancement of the world rests on the determination of individuals who dare to question despite looming and vast uncertainty.

We must press on, questioning the traditions which we have been handed and have faith that it is possible to discover a closer semblance of the right and good, of the ideal pursuit, to make the path a little easier for the next generation.

Dear Elitist,

You think you know better, but you don’t. If you were really smart, you would know that every person has something worthwhile to teach you and that there is so much left to learn.

You look down upon those with less culture, propriety, or education, and in so doing reveal your ugly shallowness. The only thing that matters in this life is your character. The work you do in this world must be for good. If it is not, you have lived a selfish, and therefore, poor life.

You are not unique. Most people want distinction and to see themselves on a cultural pedestal. It’s called superiority or illusory bias.

Again, like most, you believe you possess something of higher intrinsic value than others. You just won the birthplace lottery and have a little more knowledge to back it up. But knowledge isn’t the absolute truth you have the same claim to as all of us, and facts are useless if they are not actionable.

If you read more good books, listened to more perspectives, and/or really got to know the people you looked down on, your lack of virtue would be mirrored back to you – your materialism and vanity.

It’s easy to embrace pride. It’s hard to practice vulnerability and accept the fact that you really have no idea what you are doing, but if you tried, it’s possible you could do really great things for the world.

However, you’re settled on petty. You have all the answers, right? You boldly hold the ultimate honor of standard-bearer because of your privilege.

I’m sorry, but you’re sick. Take a hard look at yourself because we’re all in this together, and your ego is harming others.

Love your neighbor, accept and include your peers, and try to do the right thing.

The quirky, delightful, and supremely opinionated Helen Rosner

Okay, so I have just discovered a new inspiration.

I am continuing to binge listen to the Longform Podcast, and over the course of the 20+ hours I have put in, I have discovered much.

Two learnings stand out to me as someone on the outside looking into this fantastic bubble of what seems to be coastal intellectualism:

1. The New Yorker is a big deal.

2. Helen Rosner, a food correspondent at said publication, is amazing.

She’s featured on Longform’s episode #299.

I don’t always agree with what she says, but what’s to love about her is that, although she’s at this great, influential publication, she ostensibly keeps it super real.

This manifests as a complex blend of well-thought opinion about things like what drives great narrative, self-deprecation, slight braggadocio, and pure flippancy. She’s ironic in a way that is quirky and fresh.

I began to feel this way after looking over her old blog posts. She has two blog archives: ReadySteadyGo and Every Day Forever.

ReadySteadyGo’s posts date back to 2004 and go all the way up to 2011. The blog’s subheading understandably and humorously reads “(I honestly don’t remember why I called it that; it was so long ago.)”

Her other blog is similarly unpretentious, simply stating “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice.” The about on that page is “Not too long ago my boyfriend said he wants to be with me ‘every day forever.’ This site will get awkward if we ever break up.”

So, you can kind of get what I mean.

I encourage you to check out her Twitter feed and look into her old posts. The blogs are wonderfully random and sometimes downright hilarious

Also, in case you would like some more info, here’s a characteristic talk she did recently at XOXO, an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet: